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Will memory pills help me find my car keys? - (1/14/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Greg, 65, came into the pharmacy and said to the pharmacist, "Doc, where are the memory pills? I keep forgetting to come in and buy them.” TV and magazines are replete with ads for products that claim to enhance memory, improve concentration, and boost mental ability. Just like products that promise weight loss and a youthful complexion, the companies are betting you will take the bait and fork over your hard-earned cash for these “fantastical” products.

Greg asked the pharmacist a typical question. “Are any of these better than the others? A few are a lot cheaper than the others.” The pharmacist pointed out to Greg that one gets what one pays for. You want to ingest only the best quality supplements. But remember, if it is cheap, it is likely low in quality. Some companies can low-ball a product because their quality control is such that there can be cross-contamination with other products it manufactures.

What makes these memory support products effective? If you look at the ingredients list on the bottle, you will see many substances. Most supplements are an impressive and even intimidating concoction of this and that. "But if it doesn't work, then it wouldn't be allowed on the market," said Greg. 

"Not necessarily," replied the pharmacist. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates supplements as food, not as drugs. The product does not need to work. It just cannot kill you. However, many supplements contain ingredients that have strong physiologic effects that may interact with prescribed medications or a medical condition you may have, such as heart disease. Therefore, always ask a pharmacist or other health care professional before using any over-the-counter supplement.

Sometimes you will hear that a product is "pharmacist recommended." This professional testimonial irks this pharmacist because it is based, not on performance, but on name recognition. When the company buys TV time or print space to hawk a product, the company that spends the most advertising dollars wins the attention of the passive observer or reader. It has little to do with effectiveness.  

The two memory support brands that are most recommended by pharmacists are Prevagen® (Quincy Biosciences; Milwaukee, WI) and Focus Factor® (Factor Nutrition Labs, LLC; Westbrook, ME). Prevagen contains apoaequorin, a substance found in jellyfish. A clinical study that was done on people ages 40 to 91 to assess whether Prevagen improved memory. Compare most 40-year olds with 90-year olds, and the degree of memory loss is not equal. Also, the FDA filed a 2012 warning letter to the manufacturer, saying it penetrates the brain and, thus, needs to go through the formal drug approval process. Ultimately, the company tried but failed to show it can help people with memory loss.

Focus Factor allegedly memory because of its main ingredient, vinpocetine, derived from the periwinkle plant. According to research published in the journal Neurochemistry International, vinpocetine displays some positive effects on memory. If so, why are there three dozen additional ingredients in the product? Hence, no guarantee exists that Focus Factor will slow down memory-related aging.

The pharmacist explained to Greg that if he wants to keep his brain nimble, then play word games to exercise his mind, go walking to use his body, and to keep his blood pressure controlled, which will slow down the aging process in his brain. These activities are cheaper, and they can work.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. 


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